The FBI agent is an iconic American figure, depicted in countless movies and television shows. Hollywood might exaggerate the job's glamour, but it's true that ever since the founding of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1908, its agents have pursued "public enemies" such as gangster John Dillinger, serial killer Ted Bundy and terrorist John Kaczyinski (the "Unabomber"). Yet the job of an FBI agent involves more than tracking down and arresting dangerous domestic criminals. Read on to find out more about what an FBI agent does, how to become one and how to excel in this career.
What Does an FBI Agent Do?
The 30,000 employees of the FBI work to enforce the laws of the United States and to gather information in order to keep American citizens safe. In addition to apprehending criminals, the FBI's many responsibilities include protecting the country from terrorists, making sure our computer systems are secure against attacks, and exposing corrupt public officials and fraudulent businesses. The 12,000 special agents of the FBI spearhead the Bureau's work on these and other matters, such as kidnappings, civil rights violations, drug trafficking and extortion.
According to the FBI website, "there is not a typical day for an FBI agent." The demands of each case vary and the nature of the work depends on what stage a case is at. From gathering evidence and interviewing suspects or witnesses to making an arrest and testifying in court, an FBI agent does many things.
What Are the Steps to Becoming an FBI Agent?
To become an FBI agent you must:
- Be a citizen of the United States or the Northern Mariana Islands
- Be at least 23 years old at the time of application/be younger than 37 at the time of becoming an agent
- Be able to relocate anywhere within the FBI's jurisdiction
- Have a four-year college degree
- Have at least three years work experience
- Have a valid driver's license
- Have no felony convictions
- Meet specific physical fitness, vision, hearing and general health requirements
If you meet all these requirements, you can apply to become a special agent in one of five entry programs: accounting, computer science, language, law and diversified. Your background determines which program you qualify for. Attorneys, for example, would qualify for the law program. The diversified program is for those who do not have specialized skills in the other four program areas.
No matter which program you are in, your overall skill set is examined during the hiring process. Preference is given to those who have skills in more than one critical area. A very competitive candidate might have accounting skills as well as foreign language skills or a law degree as well as military training. Other sought-after skill sets include those of law enforcement, engineering and intelligence gathering.
If you are chosen to become an FBI agent, you must pass a thorough background check. Your family, friends, coworkers and teachers are interviewed by the FBI to determine your character and to make sure you have not engaged in illegal activities such as drug use.
All new FBI agents begin their careers by spending 18 weeks of training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Here you take classes in everything from cyber fraud to interviewing techniques to evidence collection. Intense work-outs and training in firearms and self-defense are also part of the Quantico curriculum.
FBI agents are compensated according to a U.S. Office of Personnel Management pay scale. Average yearly wage for new agents is between $61,100 and $69,000, depending on the location of their first assignment.
How to Become a Great FBI Agent
Given the highly selective hiring process and the in-depth training of new recruits, there is arguably no such thing as an "average" FBI agent. However, an exceptional agent is one who takes advantage of education and training opportunities offered by the FBI. It's critical for all FBI agents to remain up-to-date as technologies evolve and laws change, so the education process continues throughout an agent's career. There are also non-required programs and courses, such as the Executive Development Institute (EDI), that agents can avail themselves of to become even more skilled and/or to advance to management-level positions.
In 2006, The New York Times reported on the FBI's difficult transition, post-9/11, from an organization dedicated to investigating crimes to one gathering intelligence to prevent crimes, especially terrorism. Great FBI agents must have a clear vision of this new FBI and be open to implementing institutional changes, undertaking criminal investigations and gathering intelligence with equal vigor and scrupulousness.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Police and Detectives
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- Office of Personnel Management: Salaries & Wages
Specific program outcomes may vary, and employment opportunities are not guaranteed.